written by Merry Helm
May 6, 2019 — McLean County is named for John A. McLean, the first mayor of Bismarck. Today we’re talking about one of his sons, Harry, who was born in Bismarck in 1883 and died May 1, 1961.
Young Harry had guts and a whole lot of moxie. He started his career as a water boy for a railway construction company building a branch out of Mandan. He was a fast learner and immediately started climbing the ladder until finally going into business for himself.
Working mostly in Canada, McLean specialized in doing things that “couldn’t be done.” In the late 1920s, for example, rich mineral reserves were discovered in northern Manitoba, but the area was reachable only by dogsled. Many men scoffed when McLean took the job of building a railroad to Flin Flon – it would have to cross vast stretches frozen ground that would thaw and become spongy in the summer – any train on such a line was sure to sink. But McLean brought in tons of ballast, which insulated the frozen ground so it never melted. The railroad was finished in record time, and more importantly, it worked.
McLean’s company also built the Montreal Aqueduct, a New York subway line, and the Quebec Tunnel. But, his most remarkable accomplishment was building the Abitibi Dam in northern Ontario. In 1932, the Bismarck Capital reported, “…it was necessary to deflect the course of the river by means of a great, concrete-lined tunnel cut through solid rock. The tunnel was constructed during the frozen winter months, men racing against time to complete the work before the river should break up … and sweep away an unfinished project. For a while it was a toss-up as to whether man or time would win, and then McLean’s men finished triumphantly…”
McLean soon became known as the “Canadian Jim Hill,” but he identified more with the man-on-the-street than with fellow millionaires. He was legendary for the extraordinary lengths he went to ensure the safety of his men. After finishing his projects, he would erect large memorials dedicated to employees who were killed or injured there. Engraved on each was a poem written by his friend, Rudyard Kipling, called “Sons of Martha,” which refers to the New Testament story of Mary and Martha. The poem claims that the Sons of Mary will always be privileged, but of poor Martha, the poem says, “because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest, Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.”
Canada has 9 or 10 of these rare cairns; but there’s also one in North Dakota – at Washburn, the county seat of McLean County. McLean had originally commissioned a giant bronze statue of a pioneer family for Washburn, but that piece instead ended up on the capitol grounds in Bismarck.
Around 1943, newspapers in Canada and the United States started writing about a mystery man, “Mr. Giveaway,” who was handing out hundred-dollar bills to complete strangers, especially service men. A girl at a Toronto hotel switchboard was given $1,000 that she was supposed to share with eight bellboys. A taxi driver said the man gave him $2,000 for his new baby boy, saying, “I just want to help out the people who are working hard for a living.” The mystery man was finally discovered to be our Harry McLean when a Halifax bank cashed one of his checks. McLean said he did it “just to make people happy.”
written by Merry Helm
May 7, 2019 — North Dakota is an absolute treasure for fans of feathered wildlife; in fact, there’s hardly a spot in the state that’s more than an hour away from some kind of wildlife refuge.
Right now, sharp-tailed grouse are at the height of their spectacular sunrise mating rituals. In his courtship dance, the male grouse puffs up the purple air sacs on the sides of his neck and lures his beloved by extending his wings, stamping his feet and making low “cooing” sounds.
And here are some facts about swallows. It’s considered good luck to have swallows nest on your buildings. It’s illegal to destroy active swallow nests, because swallows are migratory birds. And swallows eat their weight in mosquitoes a day. Now that should earn them some status!
Prison Riots in Bismarck
written by Merry Helm
May 8, 2019 — On this day in 1957, newspapers across the country were reporting a prison riot at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck the previous day. The trouble started late in the morning, when 220 prisoners refused to go back to work in the binder-twine factory.
The convicts complained of poor food, about the actions of a particularly hated guard, and inadequate time for recreation.
The inmates went back to their cellblock but refused to enter their cells. The situation escalated about two hours later, when they barricaded themselves inside and began smashing things.
Four prison guards hid in the boiler room and the hospital, where they were able to call out on a telephone.
Warden Nygaard, who was in Jamestown, told them to remain hidden; he didn’t want the rioters to take them hostage. State patrolmen, Bismarck policemen and two fire trucks soon surrounded the prison.
A United Press reporter managed to climb a ladder and talk with five of the strike leaders through the bars of a window. The men said prison guards were stealing money and valuables from them. They also told of an abusive guard who would go into Bismarck and then come back and taunt the prisoners with tantalizing stories about their wives and sweethearts.
A reporter for the Associated Press was told the trouble actually started when a prisoner got thrown into solitary confinement. Guard Tom Wrangum confirmed he threw an inmate into the hole the previous day, but he refused to elaborate.
The prisoners demanded to see Governor John Davis, Attorney General Leslie Burgum or Warden O. J. Nygaard. Nygaard hurried back to Bismarck, where he told reporters he had a pretty good idea of who was leading the revolt – about seven or eight chronic troublemakers.
Matters came to an abrupt head late that afternoon. A “flying wedge” of prison guards charged the rioters with rifles and shotguns firing above their heads. The Fargo Forum reported, “What threatened to become a full-blown riot … folded up like an accordion after a tense five hours when officers used tear gas on 220 convicts.”
Three prisoners were reported wounded, and the four hidden guards were freed. The men went to bed without supper that night because food in the kitchen was contaminated by disinfectant that was broken open during the smashing spree.
When asked how he was going to proceed in the aftermath, Warden Nygaard said he was going to ignore the convicts’ charges, saying they were “cooked up” accusations.
written by Merry Helm
May 9, 2019 — James Flater, son of a New Rockford blacksmith, had an excellent record as a gunner aboard the American battleship U.S.S. Oregon — he was able to hit his mark eight out of ten times at a range of four miles.
On March 19, 1898, the Oregon departed San Francisco for Cuba, where war with Spain was brewing. A month later, the fate of the ship became uncertain; it had failed to stop in Chili for more coal, and if it was now in the Straits of Magellan, it was fighting a terrific storm. Another concern was the crew didn’t know the war had officially begun. The movements of the battleship had been revealed in newspapers, and it was rumored a Spanish torpedo boat was lying in wait somewhere south of Rio de Janeiro.
On this date, Flater’s family reported they’d learned the Oregon had safely reached Cuban waters. The ship’s 14,000-mile journey so inspired the nation, it threw its support behind a new project — the construction of the Panama Canal.
written by Merry Helm
May 10, 2019 — Sunday is Mother’s Day, so today we’re talking about Elizabeth Bodine, who was named North Dakota Mother of the Year in 1968. Bodine was a Velva native who firmly believed in education. In fact, every one of her 18 children received post-secondary education. Six of her daughters went to college, two other daughters went to business school, and all ten of her sons obtained college degrees.
In fact, the Bodines had one or more children going to Minot State for 26 years in a row.
In 1979, Elizabeth also received the Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider Award during the International Year of the Child. She was known for her humanitarian efforts as well – within her church as well as civic and community projects. Among her many contributions were sending clothing and food to her relatives in Poland during World War II, sending boxes of clothing to Vietnam, and assisting the Native American population in the Belcourt area.
Oh yeah, and it’s opening fishing day. Opening fishing on Mother’s Day? Who had that bright idea?
Happy Mother’s Day!
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.